Scout and then scout some more.
One aspect of public land hunting I learned early on in my hunting career is that deer movement is dictated by the movement of the hunters, not the deer. With that said my favorite time to do my initial scouting is right after the hunting season closes. At that time of year deer still move about like they did during hunting season, it takes them about three weeks to resume normal travel patterns. More importantly to me is that I still can see clearly where the others hunters walked and where they set up their treestands and ground blinds. Given the habitual nature of humans hunters will use the same trails the next hunting season and set up stands and ground blinds on the same locations. This information is important to figure out what the deer will be doing and where they go. Scouting right after the hunting season also has another advantage. I do not have to worry about spooking deer or risk that deer pattern me, because by the time next hunting season rolls around they will have forgotten my intrusion.
In my public land scouting efforts my primary goal is to find the escape routes the deer will use to evade the hunters. With a little knowledge about how deer utilize the structure of the land and looking around quickly will reveal where the escape routes are. My favorite situation is public land that borders onto private land. Deer often will escape to private land, but they do not stay all the time there (more about this situation further down).
For me Google Earth is a God sent. Long before I chose to hunt a given area I look at it on Google Earth. The aerial views provided are very crisp and you can zoom and out, you even can view the place in 3-D. This gives me a very good understanding of the public hunting I intend to hunt, the lay of the land and the structures that promote deer movement patterns. If you never tried Google Earth give it a try and you will be amazed what details you can see what a good tool it is to get the feel of a place long before you even go there. I used to walk for days on a property to get the feel of it and check out all the terrain structures. Now I can do that from the comfort of my home and when I go out to do my physical scouting I can head straight to the areas that look promising, rather spending all that time walking around. This comes especially into play when you have not much time to scout or the land you hunt is several driving hours away.
Look for deer islands.
No matter where you hunt there are always places other hunters will not go to. Sometimes it’s a real obstacle or just in the mind of the hunters. For example here in British Columbia most hunters drive all day along the many logging roads and never see a deer. Yet, if you leave the vehicle and walk a few hundred yards of off the road you start seeing deer. When I lived in Illinois most public land areas had a swamp or a small river flowing through them. I’ve never seen a hunter crossing a river or venturing into a swamp. Not me, I always carry a pair of hip-waders in my truck as part of my standard hunting gear. Deer seems to know about the aversion of hunters to cross rivers and enter swamps and make use of it. These places where hunters don’t go are deer islands.
Other deer islands are patches of thick growth in otherwise open grassland, or a lone stand of timber surrounded in the middle of a clear-cut. Another hot deer island that many hunters overlook are thick briar bush. Carrying hip-waders and wearing rugged clothing like upland bird hunters do will go a long way to enter places that other hunters will not.
As I mentioned above hunters are likely to do every year the same. Be different. On public land, with a few exceptions, I rarely hunt from a treestand because all other hunters do and over the years they have educated deer to look up for danger. I am different because I hunt from the ground. Neither do I use commercial ground blinds, instead I use natural material I find in the vicinity of my set up. Quite often I just choose a fallen tree, a bush of thick tree trunk as a set up. The goal here is to change as little as possible from the natural surrounding as deer are very aware of any changes and might just get suspicious enough to avoid the area. I choose my set ups well in advance of deer season to give everything plenty time so settle down again. After that I will only return to any set up to hunt it. The biggest mistake a hunter can make is to back to a set up time after time to check up on it. This is a perfect recipe that deer will figure out what is happening here and you don’t want this to happen.
Choose your time and days to hunt.
If you set up along an escape route look for an alternative route to access it. Avoid using the trails all other hunters use to enter the woods. Be in your set up at least a half hour before legal shooting light and before all the other hunters enter the woods. All you have to do now is sit, be quiet and wait until the other hunters push the deer by your set up. Take your lunch with you and hunt during midday hours too. Also hunt until you run out of legal shooting light. My observations have shown that most hunters enter the woods right at dawn – I guess they do not like to stagger through the night- and they leave the woods around 10 am to 11 am for lunch break. Most hunters will not return to the woods until about 3pm to 4pm in the afternoon. The hunters going and coming will trigger deer movement and you should make the best of it. From the time hunters leave the woods to have lunch and a nap to the time they return for the evening hunt is the time when the deer on private land will return to public land, be ready for them.
If you look up the record books of Boone & Crockett or Pope & Young you will notice that every year a fair number of trophy whitetails are taken from public land. It is possible to be successful on public land provided you’re willing to be different than anyone else and to put the work in to scout properly. Hope my tips will help you in this coming hunting season and I wish you the best of luck.